Sunday, November 6, 2011

Fungus of the Forest

This autumn on my regular bike rides through the local forest, I have occasionally encountered some earthy-looking individuals suddenly emerging at random spots from the woods.  They were all carrying plastic bags.  Some were holding knives in their hands. 

There was nothing, of course, to be alarmed about.  As everyone here would instantly recognize, these people are mushroom hunters, taking advantage of this autumn’s unseasonably warm and wet weather that has resulted in one of the best seasons ever for fungus foraging. 

Chanterelle mushrooms. Photo: Strobilomyces
Finns are great forest scavengers.  Even for urban Helsinkians, it’s not uncommon to head out to the nearest woods to pick berries or mushrooms.  It’s practically a national pastime, and another one of the ways that Finns are more closely connected to the land than, say, the average American would be. 

When I was growing up in Georgia, my family did its share of berry picking, mostly blackberries.  (Blackberries do not grow wild in Finland, where they are called karhunvatukka or “bear’s raspberries”).  My parents would have us put on sturdy boots and long-sleeve shirts (almost unbearable in the middle of a Georgia summer) and wade into thorny thickets of blackberry “vines”, sometimes chest high.  My mom would make jelly and jam from the berries, and fantastic cobbler pies that I can still almost taste. 

But mushroom picking is not something that we – or, for that matter, anyone I knew in Georgia - ever did, so I’ve never felt inclined to search out rotten logs for a little something to put on my pizza.  In any case, as long as I’ve lived here, we’ve had enough wild mushrooms in the freezer, thanks to my wife’s parents who keep us well supplied with various berries and fungal staples, like chanterelles, that they find in the forest. 

Poisonous false morels for sale.
Photo:  Imari Karonen
And then there’s the poison thing.  The woods here are full of delicious safe mushrooms, and others that can kill you in a matter of hours (which may also be delicious, but that’s kind of beside the point as your liver turns to goo).  So, I’ve been happy to leave the mushroom gathering to the experts in my family, or just stick with store-bought variety. 

Even there you might have watch out.  A few years ago, a foreigner shopping in large grocery store in Helsinki bought some korvasieni (false morels), which are dangerous to even touch but are (apparently) delicious once properly prepared (in this case, that means boiling the piss out of them).  As I recall the story, there was no sign in the store warning that this particular produce was poisonous, since  as steeped in mushroom culture as Finns are  “everyone” here knows this already.  Or, it could be that the warnings were only in Finnish.  (Stores now by law must warn customers in six languages how toxic these morsels are.)  Luckily, the unsuspecting foreign shopper survived his encounter with this delicacy of the forest. 

This is an example of why I’ve never been overeager to go looking for mushrooms on my own.  However, a few weeks ago I joined a group of well-informed friends and harvested my first haul of wild fungi.  I picked only one type, suppilovahvero (trumpet chanterelle), a perfectly safe and impossible-to-mistake-for-anything-that-can-possibly-kill-you mushroom that also happens to be highly prized in Finnish cuisine.  I sautéed them with creme and served them with boiled potatoes.  Can’t get much more Finnish than that.  

My haul of suppilovahvero (trumpet chanterelle).

1 comment:

  1. That's so cool that you guys know how to harvest the good ones! When I lived in Gilmer I knew a few people who had the knowledge to harvest a couple of species. But I've always been too frightened to give it a risk.